EAST AFRICA 2021 – 2022. EPISODE TWO

NEW YEAR 2022

Love it or loathe it: this was a popular Christmas gift from England!

Despite the numerous times I have seen it, and the relative intimacy with which I now know the area, this first dramatic reveal of the great African Rift Valley never fails to catch my breath and bring a frisson of excitement at its immensity – and my presence, here gazing into its blue depths. This giant cleft in our planet’s crust is a wonder of the world. Stretching all the way from Mozambique to Jordan, plunging up to 6000 feet deep, it is truly vast.

As I ride through the scruffy town of Iten, at about 2000 metres, where international runners like to train at altitude, there’s no indication that the chasm is nearby: it all just looks like more and more of the rolling mountains and occasional coniferous woodlands through which I’ve passed for the previous couple of hours. Then, as I leave the mess of the small town, with its boda-boda butchers, its market traders, petrol stations, unappealing hotels, scrap metals, infestation of small motorbikes and its battered cars, comes a gateway over the road that thanks me for visiting the ‘Home of Champions’ and a couple of tight sweeping bends to left and right. It’s that right hander that suddenly reveals the valley, behind a crowded viewpoint at this holiday time. Instantly, the Rift drops away, the vast African sky – a wonder itself – arching endlessly above, filled with white clouds.

After this explosive reveal, this road will wind itself down the escarpment, falling away for the next twenty kilometres, the astonishing view always there to the left and ahead as the rocky red cliffs rise higher on the right. Here, I’m descending into the Kerio Valley, a branch of the Great Rift that is perhaps 50 miles long, leaving its mother valley to the north and ending in tall steep faces that I have ridden many times, around and up and down, to the south, for this is one of my favourite regions of East Africa. Across the immediate valley rises the barrier of the brown Tugen Hills, that divide the Kerio Valley from the Rift itself. Just here it’s something like four and a half thousand feet deep and maybe five miles across, but at my familiar destination, Kessup, I am about one and a half thousand feet down the escarpment on a wide plateau, about half a mile across and two or three long. It’s one of the parts of Africa that I’ve come to know – and understand – most fully, thanks to William.

William is a feature of these journals past, since we met five years back here at the Lelin Campsite – a bit of a misnomer, as it’s actually pleasant gardens with a number of small cabins and bandas, ranged along the very lip of the valley – and I’ve seldom seen a tent. It enjoys views worth hundreds of dollars for just £11 a night. I found the place by accident. I was desperately tired that evening, after a 70 mile rough ride on trails along the depths of the valley below. Once I saw the view, there was no other choice. I stayed. The then manager, Chesoli, offered me a guide for a walk next day: William. It’s funny, I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of guides I have hired on my travels, unless they are mandatory in parks and monuments. I like to explore for myself, not be shown the local ‘sights’ by rote. So this time, what made me accept, such that I made a good friend, whom I have returned to visit so many times? We bonded quickly by instinct. I recognised a man of integrity, good to find in an African ex-policeman, not know for their probity…

“The goodness is, we both like to walk!” exclaims William frequently. And we both like people too, wandering amongst the homes and shambas of the plateau and occasionally further afield to the valley bottom or the clifftop heights. He’s dead honest and respected amongst his neighbours, speaks English very easily – and understands my accent well too. Over the years, he’s come to appreciate the stories and explanations I like to hear of his culture, and the facts and everyday things we pass on our long-ranging walks. It’s a two way exchange, for he questions life and attitudes in Europe too. Our companionable walks are extending, even down to oppressive heat of the valley bottom. Last trip, we did it down and back in a day and it was almost a killer: 2600 feet down and 2600 feet back up! “But you were determined!” says William, not realising that I was faint from effort and seeing strange starry lights much of the time! “…Determined!”

“This time,” I suggest, “let’s go down and stay a couple of nights.” And already, William is planning our ‘tour’. Of course, I don’t ‘hire’ him as a guide any more. He’s become a good friend now, and we wander cheerfully. My support these days is for his tomato farming, a new pair of (secondhand) shoes now and again, a gift of some banknotes here and there, and the confidence of a friend who’s here in need.

We make friends everywhere, William and I. I’m making a brief hello visit this time, just a couple of nights. It was going to be three, but somehow my new phone picked up an email from Boston asking me to join an online meeting on Wednesday evening at 5.00, so I must return to Kitale where I know I have internet. So we’ve only a day to ramble the red dirt paths and tracks. Oddly enough, we’ve both had the same thought: we’d like to investigate a tempting zigzag trail we spotted from afar last year on one of our longer walks. It careers wildly down the escarpment a mile and a half or so to the north of Kessup. We could make out vertiginous corkscrew turns that looked impossibly contorted and steep for anything but feet and cows. I doubt a car – even an African one – would be able to negotiate the turns and precipitous angles (although a Suzuki DR 200 motorbike might!).

We drop steeply down from the guest house through patchwork fields of villagers’ shamba to the red track that I see from my room, winding along the plateau below. I’m like the Pied Piper: everywhere I go I am followed by the voices of excited children calling, “MZUNGU! MZUNGU!” Sometimes they are far away, obscured amongst vegetation or amongst small village homes built of corrugated zinc, mud and sticks or stone and cob. It’s often impossible to make out from where the shouts are coming. I am as visible to them as if they had radar.

“How are you for shoes this year?” I ask William, looking at his footwear that has seen a great deal of use, even before he bought them from a secondhand stall in Iten. Maybe, if we are going to take the long walk we are planning – down into the valley and across to the other side, ten miles and two and half thousand feet or more below, maybe I should buy him some other ‘new’ shoes from the mtumba market.

“Oh, I am very OK! The ones from last year are still strong. But I am keeping them for our ceremonial safaris!” I love the quaint usage that the English language sometimes finds here.

*

On our way down into the valley, to investigate the dramatic road we spotted last year, we pick up a young boy, Rogers, and a rather smelly drunk. “Oh, he smells very badly!” says William, “I think he took bad booze!” It takes a long time to shake off the drunk, such is the insensitivity of the inebriated, but Rogers we are happy to have along, with his smiles and chirpiness.

Chirpy Rogers

As we pass one shamba, William calls to the owner to ask if she will prepare us tea for 50 bob for when we return up the winding red track. It’s lovely that we can just ask like this, and people are happy to oblige with that generosity that opens hearts here in the rural landscape. So as we clamber back up, we stop at Caroline’s house. A group of children are excited, sitting about on a giant rock inside her ragged hedge, behind which the view expands into the blue haze. It’s quite cloudy today, great for my walk, but I will still end up like a beetroot by evening. Caroline finds us stools in the shade of her zinc house. She finally drives away the drunkard and we are left in peace to converse with her and her bright niece, Doris. Doris graduated from Eldoret University this year and is now teaching computer skills and mathematics down-country in Limuru, on the main highway to Nairobi. She’s bright and intelligent, yet a product of this deeply rural area where opportunities are few – but grabbed enthusiastically and respected by hard work. It’s the only way out of this trap of a near-poverty life in the heat on the dry slopes of this huge valley. The land here is good; water generally enough to raise some fairly lucrative vegetable crops, but this year it’s dry, so dry. Everyone complains that the rains have been bad and the crops are failing. In Kitale it’s been a wet year, just 100 miles away, with mosquitoes to suit. Doris is 26 and says she’s enjoying her work, even if it’s far away. It’s her first post and she’ll have little choice as a new graduate, but she’s making the most of it. She knows she’s on her way to better things in life than if she had stayed here on the edge of the Kerio Valley with inevitable marriage to a farmer and a life on the land, scratching a living at the vagaries of this harsh climate. Caroline makes us a flask of tea and brings small bags of groundnuts from her kiosk at the gate, from which she supplies local people with a few necessities. I share my peanuts with Rogers, and in the kindly way that I respect so much, Caroline thanks me for my gesture on his behalf.

We stay forty minutes or so and promise to phone ahead when we are going to take our long walk into the valley, when we’ll take this steep path again. William takes her number. Phones are ubiquitous: in most hands, from goatherds to businessmen. I’ve hardly seen anyone in East Africa read a book – it’s completely gone from the vocabulary. There are few books available anywhere outside the cities – except Bibles of course, and they’re everywhere. Now thumbs flick and everyone finds some form of pastime from the ether. Sad that so much of it is exploitative and trivial, but it’s just the new way.

*

A couple of months ago, even I finally accepted that life was getting difficult without a smartphone myself. There’s so much you are just expected and assumed to be able to download, upload and show to authorities: PCR test results, QR codes for Kenyan health authorities, vaccination certificates, visa details, security codes from banks and so forth. The one application I am enjoying on my secondhand iPhone is the compass and altimeter. Here and there on my journeys I stop to check the height, often an impressive feature of travelling in East Africa. My English phone roams for connections to local networks and just one of those allows me to receive emails out in the sticks. Sadly, it’s not the service the phone usually finds, but at a height along my way to Kessup, I got an email from USA. Could I join a ‘meeting’ with my colleagues for the new project on Wednesday? ‘I’d be grateful if you could remember I am now eight hours ahead of you in Boston’, I replied, ‘ but I’ll do my very best. Should be able to get to an internet connection by then’. It meant this trip would be cut short; just a quick hello to William for a day’s wandering, and then back to Kitale.

*

At noon on Wednesday I wave goodbye to William and set off back across the fine high Cherengani Hills, which, as Rico says, would be called mountains anywhere else. I forget every time, just how chilly I can get on my little bike at these altitudes. Thanks to the new app, I know that at one point on my ride I reach 3060 metres above sea level – just over 10,000 feet; not surprising there’s a chill in the air despite the searing African sun. I love to ride up here, on quiet roads now tarred by the Chinese, although I enjoyed it more when I had to ride the broken trails a couple of years ago: somehow, it felt a bit more adventurous and intrepid. The views are magnificent; the air clear and fresh; the dark fir trees shadows on the bright patchwork of small fields that clamber the slopes, testimony to centuries of hard graft. Zinc corrugated houses, that must be chilly at night, glint where they aren’t rusted; narrow orange dusty paths meander across the hillsides; fences are frequently of grained split timbers from those same ancient firs and cedars, the ones that survive the need for firewood that I see carried in heavy bundles on backs everywhere, often by teenage girls. Teenagers in the global north have little concept of how privileged they are to avoid such duties: not to be lugging firewood in heaps I can hardly lift off the floor up the sides of the Great Rift Valley and from distant forests. Life is hard here for all ages…

I KNOW there’s a way to connect the road I am on now to the one I used on my way here. There are big hills between, but I just know that dusty gravel roads web across these fine hills. On my way to Kessup two days ago, I stopped for tea in a small village, mainly so I’d fall into conversation with local people. Of course, I did: my smile assures that. A young tea-server by the rather unlikely name of Ian, recited a list of villages I must look for to find the connecting trails. “A few kilometres from here, before the bridge at Kabomoi you turn left…”

“I know that bridge! There’s a small petrol station place there.”

“Turn by the petrol pumps. Then you will go to Sugut, Kapnasu and Karandili.”

Looking for new roads to travel…

Well, I found Sugut and Kapnasu, but I’ve no idea how I missed Karandili – and ended up on the road from which I’d started 15 miles before. All I’d made was a big loop through some pretty hills on a rugged rock track. It’s often like that here. There’s no useful large scale map available, and the online versions don’t help much as they don’t differentiate between the main tracks and the goat tracks, and few of the small hamlets get a name, not even most of the towns.

On my way home, I finally find a connecting trail that bumps me through magnificent high forests with views down into distant valleys and distant soaring slopes. I see now it’s a track I once used: I recognise a scruffy, back-of-beyond village where I stopped for chai, sinecure of all village eyes, as I swung down to the small hilltop town of Kapcherop, and on down in great loops and twirls to the plains below, themselves at 6000 feet or so. I love to discover new routes. I never feel any danger, however remote the places I ride – except in some of the VERY extensive deserts, which can be a bit alarming. People everywhere along these distant trails are friendly and helpful, amazed by the old mzungu bucketing his way along on his ‘big’ motorbike (all 200ccs of it – the smallest bike I ever owned!). I’m an exotic species, timidly welcomed when I stop, my smile a passport to social riches.

*

And so home to Kitale in time for my ‘meeting’ with my American colleagues. I set myself up in the garden, not too far from the internet router on the porch. Happily, there have been no power cuts for 24 hours at least. I take two chairs and a stool and make myself a makeshift desk for my computer. Then I pour a Tusker and click to join the meeting. How amused are my colleagues to see me, a few miles from the Equator, in Africa, eight hours in the direction of dawn. How astonishing, this thing we already take so much for granted: to be able to not just talk to people a third of the world away, but to SEE them too – in colour! In my childhood, telephones with pictures, probably still rooted in the hallway by a twisted flex, were the things of science fiction. And they were in black and white.

Now, I can sit on any mountaintop on the planet and converse across the globe. In an hour and a quarter, my three colleagues and I accomplished as much as if we’d been sitting round the studio table in Boston, a place that it would have taken me a day and a half to travel to – 100 years ago, weeks! Rico, passing on his way to a can of beer on the porch, took a photo of this Intercontinental designer (no longer international, as I’ve now worked on four continents!) at his ‘office’. Meeting over, I emailed the picture to USA, where it was forwarded to the clients! What they might make of their designer, beetroot red, in shorts, with a glass of beer, amongst African vegetation, computer balanced on chairs and stools – well, who knows?!

The Intercontinental designer in his Africa Office

*

Last year, I remember suggesting that we celebrate New Year at 10.30, to avoid that tedious wait for midnight. It seemed a remarkably sensible idea, we all concurred. “After all, it’s midnight for lots of people already!” said Adelight. This year, by tacit agreement, we all decided the year had ended at 9.25. Quietly, we all left the glowing ashes of an aromatic log fire and crept away to sleep amongst unseen nocturnal animals high on the slopes of Mount Elgon.

Mount Elgon National Park forms the western horizon from Kitale, a low-shouldered volcanic caldera, reckoned to be the oldest extinct volcano in East Africa and with the biggest area in the world. It rises to 4321metres, something over 14,000 feet, making it the eighth highest African mountain. But facts don’t explain the beauty of the park at this time of year, with abundant growth and ancient forests through which wind and climb orange laterite tracks.

High in the Mt Elgon Park the late sun makes a staircase of the trees

In cliff faces are caves that attract the many – largely invisible – elephants to mine and lick the salt rocks. In touring the red tracks and walking narrow paths through thick undergrowth, we saw enough elephant shit to fill a large lorry, but even huge pachyderms could be fifty metres away in such growth and remain disappointingly unseen. The memory for me will be the startling blue/ purple of the flowers of a profuse spiky-leaved shrub that grew along the red laterite trails amid numerous shades of green, the Equatorial sunoverhead. There’s the excitement too of scouring the thick growth for animals: the retiring elephants, buffaloes, bush bucks and many variety of deer, warthogs, baboons, plentiful zebras – even giraffes and jackals, one of which ranged our camp as we ate our barbecued goat meat in the firelight.

Kitkum Cave, Mt Elgon Park. Enlarged by elephants mining for salt
I’ve searched the internet to identify this wonderful shrub, to no avail. Anyone any idea?

We’d rented three basic bandas for the night. There are scarce tourists and few Kenyans have money these days for fripperies such as holiday tours. These are hard economic times everywhere, and its only the disproportionate wealth that my Western currency enjoys, that makes a family trip like this possible. For residents these things are unaffordable luxury just now. The park was quiet, even on this holiday. Tourism, currently defunct, is Kenya’s largest foreign earner. And no government subsidies to help businesses, let alone individuals, weather the pandemic storm.

A drink to start the year, with Scovia and Adelight in the National Park

Rico’s old Pajero makes reasonably light work of the pitted trails, with six adults and two children aboard, as we meandered through thick forest, between ancient gnarled cedars and finally up to higher moorland climes. Being a rounded mountain, it’s usually impossible to see any impressive peaks but the views downward over the north of Kenya and the Karimajong region of northern Uganda are apparently endless, pimpled by small extinct volcanic cones.

Mount Elgon, a beautiful park
Zebras at breakfast time
Ancient trees on Mount Elgon

*

The girls: Scovia, Marion, Bo, Shamilla and little Maria enjoy one another’s company so much; it’s delightful to watch and share with them. Their acceptance of family duties and chores; their cheerfulness together and their happiness to embrace any opportunity that comes their way is inspiring. They have none of the material advantages of Western young women, perhaps less of the social and peer pressures too. They love such fashion as is within their reach, endlessly creating new hair weaves for one another, sharing clothes and dressing stylishly in items that they search and find in the bales of secondhand fabrics in the dusty market places: clothes already discarded by their privileged age-mates in the ‘rich’ world. Rich? Africa causes me to question that definition constantly when I compare the increase in anxiety, depression and behavioural problems in our materially rich countries to the evidence of my eyes here in ‘poor’ Africa. It’s easy – for me, who has so much – to idealise and romanticise, for I know these girls have fewer opportunities than those around me in England and must accept many struggles to realise ambitions and wishes. But those very efforts enhance the rewards when, or if, they DO achieve their aims.

On the mountain, Scovia asked, “Uncle Jonathan, can you take our picture together? We will lie in a circle…” I was happy to oblige, even if it did seem that the gods of the camera had been well propitiated with multiple ‘selfies’ in the previous 24 hours! If it’s true a picture speaks 1000 words, I’ll stop writing and offer the picture instead.

Smiles for 2022:

Happy family. January 1st 2022

One thought on “EAST AFRICA 2021 – 2022. EPISODE TWO

  1. Happy New Year Jonathan! It’s great to be sharing a bit of sunshine and optimism with you again from Africa. I feel like I know Adelight, Scovia and all the family now, so Happy New Year to them too!
    Liz

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